Libertarian History/Philosophy

Ayn Rand's Aesthetics: Nockian, Not Aristotelian


Daniel McCarthy blogging at The American Conservative, finds an interesting detail in the footnotes of Jennifer Burns' new book about Rand, Goddess of the Market, showing that while Rand thought she was getting a central feature of her aesthetics from Aristotle, it was really a misunderstanding she got via old right essayist Albert Jay Nock. McCarthy quotes Burns:

According to Rand, Aristotle believed that 'history represents things as they are, while fiction represents them as they might be and ought to be.' However, as two scholars sympathetic to Rand conclude, this attribution 'misquotes Aristotle and misrepresents his intent.' … It appears that Rand drew this concept not from Aristotle, but from Albert Jay Nock. In Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1943), 191, Nock writes, 'History, Aristotle says, represents things only as they are, while fiction represents them as they might be and ought to be.' In her copy of the book, Rand marked this apssage with six vertical lines.

My Washington Times review of Burns' book. More, much more, Reason on Rand to come. And my book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement has many tens of thousands of words on the lives and work of both Rand and Nock.

NEXT: Radicals For Capitalism: A Special Event Celebrating The Enduring Power of Ayn Rand's Ideas

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  1. Radicals for Capitalism cemented my libertarianism, btw. So, there’s a feather in your cap, B.

  2. history represents things as they are

    Anyone libertarian who has read a historian’s glowing praise of FDR ought to be aware that much alleged history ought to be categorized as fiction.

  3. Do you know how often I’ve wandered in my garden, pondering “I wonder if Rand’s central tenet really came from Aristotle, or from a Nockian misinterpretation of Aristotle?” Never. That’s exactly how often.

    Do people (other than geeky 15-year-olds who bought some Peikoff DVDs with dad’s credit card) really care about this?

    1. i don’t, but you do, apparently.

  4. I may be threadjacking just a bit, but I have to put in a good word for the libertarian implications of Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic philosophy (despite his avowed socialism). In the preface to his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde wrote, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” I like to think this establishes a wall of separation between ethics and aesthetics analogous to Jefferson’s wall between church and state — and similarly liberating. If aesthetic judgment is not understood as inherently distinct from ethical judgment, ethics will tend to swallow up aesthetics. This tendency arguably inspires many forms of political correctness. (I’ve blogged about this.)

    Anybody got a problem with that?

    1. Although your point is fundamental to the evaluation of art on purely aesthetic grounds and is commonly ignored by critics, you miss the mark by implying art has no relevance to human life.

      At some point we observe art and evaluate it in terms of its importance to our life. Without this personal evaluation art would be irrelevant. Furthermore, without this evaluation first coming from the artist upon creation, there would be no basis for the selection of subject matter and theme.

      Your analogy of the separation of church and state misses the point as well. The political basis for the establishment of any government is necessarily rooted in ethics, but not necessarily religion.

  5. Aristotle spoke about fiction as a literary genre?

  6. “Some men see things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” – Robert F. Kennedy paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw

  7. So will creepy objectivist “art” have to swap AJN’s bust for Aris’?

  8. The tidbit about Nock is interesting. However, Tore Boeckmann writes in “What Might Be and Ought to Be: Aristotle’s Poetics and The Fountainhead,” in Essays on Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Rand “is exactly right on the implications of Aristotle’s ‘could occur’ — and of his central argument in the Poetics.”

  9. So you’re saying Ayn never bothered reading Aristotle, but instead used the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version? My opinion of her status as a philosopher has been confirmed.

    1. Certainly, she could have, I don’t know, read the original AND read interpretations, dontcha think?

    2. Your opinion was “confirmed” long before you read this post.

  10. If Rand really mischaracterized this, does anyone know what then is Aristotle’s actual view of fiction? and where this could be found?

  11. Is the quote actually from Aristotle or not? If it is what’s the problem?

    1. The “problem” seems to be that Rand did not translate the original Greek. Or something. She most often uses the “things as they could be and should be” idea when discussing the differences between Naturalism and Romanticism, specifically in literature and the dramatic arts.

  12. Ayn Rand’s possible misrepresentation of Aristotle does not negate the importance of her contribution to Aesthetics.

    Rand made a huge leap in Aesthetics by defining the nature of art, its roots in epistemology, and its importance for human life.

    Furthermore, her status as a thinker does not necessitate her riding on the coattails of a great philosopher. At several points in her thinking she makes it clear where she departs from Aristotle and when she believed him to be mistaken.

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